The Ntwana People of South Africa

© Dr Peter Magubane
A big group of male Ntwana initiates walking to the traditional ceremony.

Cultural Exchanges

Kwarrielaagte in Mpumalanga province of South Africa is the chief village of the Ntwana. Purchased from a white farmer at the beginning of this century, Kwarrielaagte's architectural configuration, like the traditions, modes of dress and artistic practices of its inhabitants, reflects a stable social hierarchy.

Each member of the group has a strictly assigned status and position, according to both nature and social custom within a frozen landscape, unsullied by shifts in historical, social and cultural tides. The cultural exchanges between the Ntwana and Pedi are evident in similarities in dress (women from both groups wear the missionary-introduced smock as part of their traditional dress), custom, ritual, architectural configuration (both groups live in traditional Northern Sotho settlements) and language.

The Ndebele are also known to have shared close ties with the Ntwana, reinforced through intermarriage, mutual participation in initiation rituals and similarities in female adornment, such as the beaded neckbands worn by women from both groups. All three groups observe a strict division of gender roles and depend on the rural agrarian economy for their survival.

Ntwana History

Like the Transvaal Ndebele and Pedi, by the end of the 19th century the Ntwana were faced with colonial subjugation and the migrant labour system which served to shatter the rural economy. These historical circumstances augmented the emphasis on stable values and traditions in order to preserve a way of life that was being transformed.

The name Ntwana ('hard-headed' or 'warrior') possibly derives from a legend surrounding the break-away of a splinter group from the Bamangwato. Apparently, one of the chief's sons broke a taboo concerning the consumption of bull flesh. He was consequently excommunicated and departed with a band of renegades in the late 1780s to form the Ntwana group.

Today the group mostly inhabit the Moutse area, south of Groblersdal in Mpumalanga province. Although the Ntwana form the majority of the inhabitants of Moutse, the area is also populated by Pedi, Swazi, Sotho and Ndebele communities. Until 1986 the different communities co-existed peacefully, largely sharing value systems, engaging in mutual cultural exchanges and even intermarriage.

This harmony was shattered in 1986 by the forced incorporation of Moutse into the former homeland of KwaNdebeIe. The Ntwana resisted resettlement; as the once politically conservative community became more militant, the area around Dennilton and Kwarrielaagte became a battleground, not only between pro- and anti- government forces, but between neighbours and families as well.

Yet, in the midst of the turmoil, many Ntwana traditions continued, particularly among the women. In the absence of their menfolk - most of whom worked as migrant labourers - they were forced to maintain both the rural economy while continuing their traditional roles as wives and child-bearers.